January 12 2017
An important conversation is taking place about President-elect Trump’s business interests, and how they may impact his ability to govern fairly and effectively. It’s understandable why Americans might be concerned – Mr. Trump has extensive investments that span the globe – and some are urging the president-elect to divest himself from all his businesses and put them in a blind trust.
But, stepping back, it’s important to recognize that this isn't the first time someone from the business world has moved into the Oval Office.
Many are familiar with recent presidents who had business interests: George W. Bush was a leading investor in the Texas Rangers; his father George H.W. Bush was a Texas oil man, helping establish the Bush-Overby Oil Development Co.
Even farther back, however, Warren Harding was the owner of The Marion Star newspaper in Ohio, a lucrative enterprise at the time. And before assuming the presidency in 1929, Herbert Hoover had founded Zinc Corporation, and later established his own multi-national mining engineering company that spanned from San Francisco to Burma.
These are just a few examples, but they ought to be admired. Americans so often lament the cycle of career politicians, the “swamp” of Washington where lawmakers move in a revolving door between Congress and lobbying shops, disconnected from the everyday challenges of most Americans.
People of all political stripes ought to be enthusiastic about a president who doesn’t come from Constitution Avenue, but instead has worked in industry – big or small. Someone who has experienced the trials of hiring and firing, dealt with political red tape, and understands both wins and losses.
But while we may like the idea of political outsiders, the government has changed drastically in the decades since the New Deal. Our tax and regulatory state, as well as our foreign policy, has all grown so large and so intrusive, that there’s really nothing Mr. Trump – or any future president – can do from a political perspective that won’t impact his business empire.
As the owner of a chain of hotels, major reforms to labor policy like raising the minimum wage or instituting paid leave and/or childcare mandates would certainly impact Trump’s ability to hire and grow. Repealing and replacing Obamacare will likely open up opportunities to improve the nation’s health care and drive down costs, but it’s also true it would likely decrease costs for Mr. Trump and ease accounting efforts – as it would for so many other American businesses. And reforms to land-use and rolling back burdensome EPA regulations, which ought to spur economic growth in multiple industries, would almost certainly benefit his real-estate development business. It makes sense that people want to make sure that the incoming President sees the best interests of Americans and all American businesses—not just his own—as paramount.
But again, this problem isn’t new – and it’s certainly not limited to Trump. Just a few years ago, we experienced a wave of corruption scandals in Washington, including among many Democrats like Charlie Rangel and Maxine Waters, who faced a host of ethical and possible criminal charges for their soliciting of favors from business and to advance the business interests of themselves and their allies.
The core problem is that big-government fosters a culture of corruption. An expansive and uber-powerful government requires that officials choose winners and losers. It ensures that lawmakers and regulators will take from some in order to give to others. We see this in health care, in energy, in education, and in the workplace..
That’s why the lesson here is not that we don’t want business leaders and others who have succeeded in civic life to run for office, or to serve in high positions as some like Rex Tillerson and Andy Puzder likely will in the Trump administration – there’s much to be gained from their experience outside of the Beltway. The moral of the story is that we all – Democrats and Republicans – ought to be committed to reining in the state so that we can welcome these “outsiders” with open arms without fear of conflict of interest.
The more we can get government out of the business of energy production and health care; and the more we can remove government from micromanaging the workplace; and the more Washington returns power to local municipalities and individuals, the better. Not only will we be a freer, more prosperous nation; but also it will drastically cut down on the “winners and losers” framework created by big-government.
Donald Trump isn’t the first lawmaker to talk about draining the swamp, but let's hope that this is a campaign promise he keeps. And if we’re all really serious about reducing corruption, giving more control back to the American people, and encouraging civic leaders to serve in government, the solution is simple – it’s time to shrink Washington back to size.